Steve Pikiell’s Rutgers men’s basketball program took a hit last week with Eugene Omoruyi’s surprise transfer.
But the Scarlet Knights feel they have a lot more going in their direction than not headed into Pikiell’s fourth season, and he wants to make sure people realize that.
“We’re two workouts in with our guys. We’ve got all our newcomers here. It’s good. It’s a good vibe,” Pikiell said Wednesday in his office during a wide-ranging conversation with NJ Advance Media following a summer workout with his team at the RAC in Piscataway.
“The facilities are getting there, and I’m getting excited about that. Starting to see the renditions. We did good in school, we had like a 2.85 GPA as a team. We had 10 guys this year over 3.0. We had some [recruits] here today. We’re plugging away.”
Pikiell discussed numerous subjects during the sitdown. You can read his thoughts on Omoruyi’s transfer by following this link. Below is Part 1 of the rest of the interview in a question-and-answer format. You can read Part 2 here.
Here is Part 1:
How has graduate transfer Akwasi Yeboah fit in so far?
“He’s in grad school, he’s mature. The guys like him. He’s an in-the-gym kind of guy. He’s going to bring a maturity to us that we haven’t had. He’s humble, he’s appreciative. He can play. He shoots the lights out of the ball.”
Was that important for you, to get a veteran guy for this relatively young team?
“Very important. Maturity, and he brings a skill-set too. He’s a very good foul shooter, he’s won big games. He’s great, and he’s not unfamiliar with me (Pikiell recruited him at Stony Brook). There’s no learning curve that way. It’s nine months (for a graduate transfer), you’re only here a short period of time. And it takes you three months to figure out the coaching staff and stuff like that … Akwasi is already, I feel like he’s been here.
“I think the pieces that we’ve added … Paul (Mulcahy) is a four-star guy. Jacob Young was a four-star. These kids are talented. And it’s good to have [Mamadou Doucoure] back. Mamadou, people forget about him. He started as a freshman, his back is feeling good, and he’s a sophomore now and goes in with Myles (Johnson) in that class. Two sophomore bigs that can play.”
So Doucoure is healthy and ready to roll?
“He’s great, and he’s excited too. You never want a player (Omoruyi) to leave, but this opens up opportunities for guys that I’m excited about. Shaq Carter, I’m excited about Mamadou, I’m excited about Myles. Akwasi gives us a whole different dimension at that position.”
How has Mulcahy been? There’s going to be so much attention on him as an in-state freshman point guard …
“He’s two days into it, so I think he’s going through what a lot of the freshmen do. He’s sore from the weight room. But Paul plays with an edge, and he’s a winner. He really knows how to play. His IQ is tremendous. And what I really love about him is he wakes up in the morning and he is excited about winning, and he’s excited about assists. There are very few players now you find in high school that come up and wake up thinking about assists.
“He has goals already to be the leading assist guy in school history. And winning. He’s about those two things, and it’s kind of a rarity these days. I love him, and the guys already love him. He’s been around a lot this year, so he just seems like a veteran, even though he’s not.”
Who has made the biggest jump from last year to now?
“Shaq Carter has done some tremendous things. I think your first year is always an adjustment, but you saw at the end of the year when Gene went down with that injury, he kind of filled in and took his next step. He’s going to have a great senior year. He has all the good qualities to him. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s bigger. He’s in better shape.
“I think Montez (Mathis) got better. Ron [Harper Jr.’s] body is ridiculous. He looks better. Caleb (McConnell) has now grown an inch, and he’s gained 18 pounds since last year. And Myles has a chance to have a breakthrough season. I think he’s one of the best big guys in the league. I expect him to be that now after a year of figuring it out and showing signs of being great. Now he needs to be consistent, and he’s going to get consistent minutes.
“I think they’ve all gotten better, and the minutes the freshmen have played have only gone well for them showing progress. Peter Kiss can really shoot the ball too. He’s another positionless guy we can put in the mix. I like what all of them bring, and how they’ve all gotten better.”
It seemed like Ron Harper Jr. was becoming a vocal, take-charge leader last year. Has that continued?
“His growth has been unbelievable. The strides he’s made physically, and you saw last year he did more as the year went on. He’s one of those guys that can rebound it and then bring it up as the point guard, I can post him up, he really knows how to play, he’s very unselfish. He has a chance to be a very good player, and he works at it. He likes to be in the gym, and he’ll be one of our more improved guys.”
Would it be fair to say this is the best team you’ve had as a head coach, from a talent standpoint?
“I like this team a lot. I think this is the most versatile team that I’ve coached. I think now what I like the most about this group is that we finally have some experience. Our freshmen got major minutes last year, so they’re experienced. We’ve added Jacob Young, who is a very experienced guy. We’ve added Mamadou to the active roster, and he started all of his games as a freshman. We’ve got Myles, who played a lot of minutes. I like Shaq Carter – he was a junior college All-American as a freshman, and he’s now a senior. I like our experience. This is the first time I feel experienced (at Rutgers). I like that a lot.
“Basketball is becoming more positionless … all these interchangeable parts, and we’ve become a team that can be like that and do different things defensively because of the versatility. Akwasi can guard 1-5. Caleb can guard 1-4. We can do things that last year we couldn’t do.”
We’ve talked about the depth and experience, and the transfer portal. Does this all change how you approach the team as a coach in the sense that now that you have all these guys who can play, it becomes like they always said about Joe Torre with the Yankees – managing the egos more than Xs and Os? Is that a different challenge for you now?
“There are a lot of different challenges now in coaching. The portal is certainly one, and it’s not going away. It’s going to only be more of a challenge for all of us. And a lot of colleges have been dealing with it for the last couple of years. Kids have those rights, and I think you have to approach every year one year at a time now. That’s kind of how you have to look at it.
“But I’m really excited about our versatility and our experience. Our two weaknesses were shooting the ball – Akwasi can really shoot the ball and Jacob Young can really shoot the ball – and free throw shooting, and they can really do that.
“We’ve added to our ballhandlers, because Paul can really pass the ball and make plays for people. We’ve added to our size, we’re bigger. Paul gives us that, and Caleb is now measuring at 6-foot-7, so Caleb has grown an inch. Guys are getting bigger and stronger. We’re adding some pieces, and I think we’ve got more guys – Montez can play the 2 and the 3, Ron can play the 2, 3, 4, if he gets a rebound he can bring it up. Caleb can play the 1, 2, 3. Paul is 6-foot-6. I think we’ve added a lot of hard-to-guard guys, guys that can shoot, pass and dribble.
“College basketball is getting more and more competitive. The whole league has a lot of good players – this is the Big Ten, the other teams have good players too – and we’re finally getting to the point where we have good players too at all the positions. I feel good about that. We’ve come a long way.”
As a college basketball coach in general, seeing where this is going, does it scare you that you can find these guys, develop them for two or three years, and then they hit the portal and a blue blood program gets to take them? Because you kind of know how a transfer is going to go, it’s less of the boom-or-bust with high school kids.
“It’s the way it is now. Nothing surprises me. They have more opportunities to leave, it’s easier to leave, they have waivers now. Students have those rights. I don’t even complain about it. I expect it. You’ve got to coach your team one year at a time, do the best job that you can.
“You can’t control some of those reasons why. You try to do a great job of educating your kids always on the good things. And I’ve been saying this – and it’s not about this – but I want kids that want to be at Rutgers. Get kids that want to be here and appreciate the journey that we’re on. I think these kids that are here, I think they’re going to work their tails off to make this a historic year for us. I think they’re excited about that challenge too.”
The expectations for this team are going to be through the roof, even with Eugene leaving. People are talking about the NCAA Tournament. Are you guys ready for that?
“I’ve been thinking tournament since I’ve been here. I like our roster. I like that we’ve got more experience. I think I have more answers. There’s been a lot of problems last year, like a problem being, ‘We can’t stop this guy, we don’t have a defender that can stop him.’ Those are the problems I’m talking about. I think now I have more answers to the problems this league can present. I like that.
“I think Montez can be a great defender. We’ve got inside guys that can score that we haven’t had. We’ve got perimeter guys that can make plays for people. We have guys that when the shot clock is going down, it’s not just going to be Geo (Baker). Jacob Young can create his own (shot) at any time, Caleb McConnell can create his own, Ron can. We’ve got more solutions to the problems that the league presents. And I think we’ve got guys that have just bought in to getting better and appreciate being here. They’re excited about the opportunities.
“When Corey (Sanders) left last year, I said it opens up 32 minutes and a lot more shots for people. Guys embraced that. I love Gene and I’m thankful for his three years, I love his family, but when one guy leaves, it’s another guy’s opportunity. And these guys are pretty good. Shaq Carter was a junior college All-American, Mamadou Doucoure, now they get more opportunities. I think they’re ready because they’re older and they’ve been through it, ready to take advantage.”
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